God has so orchestrated human language that a pair of words can become new lenses for old landscapes. Looking through words, we can see the same world we’ve always seen, but it’s somehow different, tinted, transformed. Two words that have done this for me are inside and outside.
Even without going further, I’m sure you have your own associations wafting up like steam from the water of memory: relationships, experiences, thoughts, memories, longings. C.S. Lewis had them, too, especially when ruminating on the beauty we breathe in each day. In one of the best theological essays I’ve ever read, he wrote,
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . At present, we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
That’s it. That’s what we want—as cryptic and mysterious as it sounds: we want to get in. We want to be insiders, to see and feel and taste what lies at the core of life. We are inside seekers.
But what does it mean to be inside, and what does it mean to be outside? These are questions we can only answer in relation to an environment. And, on the grandest scale, we have that. God tells us in Scripture that he is our environment, the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). And so, ultimately, we must be insiders or outsiders in relation to him. The world might reject this as nonsense. They might think of being an insider only in reference to other humans. But Scripture tells a different story. In the beginning, God created a place for us to be insiders with him.
We want to be insiders, to see and feel and taste what lies at the core of life. We are inside seekers.
That’s a start to answering the question, but only a start. What more specifically does it mean to be an insider or outsider in relation to God? The Bible—from start to finish, paradise to Patmos—teaches that all of life is a covenantal relationship, a communion bond of grace God has forged, whether we’re embracing that in Christ or repelling it in Adam. As Abraham Kuyper put it, we’re always “transacting with God.” We’re always engaging with him. And the way in which we engage is what marks us as insiders or outsiders. The two concepts that Scripture uses to define that engagement are knowing and loving.
Knowing is richer and deeper than our daily use of the word suggests. It reaches beyond the intellect, as David Brooks notes in How to Know a Person. “In the biblical world . . . ‘knowing’ is also a whole-body experience. In the Bible, ‘knowing’ can involve studying, having sex with, showing concern for, entering into a covenant with, being familiar with, understanding the reputation of” (p. 34). Knowing reaches the deepest caverns of the human heart. Passing the synapses of the brain, it runs from the mountain springs in the soul.
Epistemology and ethics share a bloodline.
In that deep sense, all people already know God, whether they admit it or not (Rom. 1:21). They are covenant creatures, carved in the image of their Creator. But that knowledge is then used in faithfulness and praise (because of God’s work by the Spirit in Christ) or rebellion and idolatry—whether the idol is a hand-carved figure, a bank balance, or an Instagram account. The deeper base of knowing God as covenant creatures is always covered by a knowing-in-faithfulness or a knowing-in-rebellion. While we often talk about knowledge and ethics as separate disciplines, Scripture shows they share the same DNA. Insiders don’t just know God; they know him in a certain way. Put differently, epistemology and ethics share a bloodline.
That leads to loving. What does it mean to love another? Well, if true knowing is covenant faithfulness, we might say true loving is covenant fawning. But fawning here doesn’t denote scenes from a romantic comedy. It’s much more costly and selfless than that. The word “fawn” is often used of a dog and its owner. “That dog fawns over its master.” That image is ideal in this covenantal context because dogs don’t do quid pro quo. They don’t amass a list of good deeds we’ve done for them and then only pay us back in measure. They have no sense of propriety or restraint. They fawn after their owners with prodigal passion. They give themselves and hope for nothing in return but a relationship.
This is not only how we are meant to love God, but how he loves us in sovereign grace. He loves us so much he gave . . . himself (John 3:16). And loving him in response means giving ourselves to him. God wants us to get in by getting him, and he gets in by getting us. That’s John 14:23 and John 17:11 and John 17:21—oneness with God. And that’s matchless, unfathomable, prodigal grace.
To be an insider, to get in, is to be fully known and fully loved by God, even as we strive, by the Spirit, to fully know and love him. Lewis talked of our desire to “mingle with the splendours we see.” But the beauties around us are rays from the sun. What we really want is the light that bore them—the three invisible persons whose love led to legion goods. It’s that holy love we long to enter. To get in is to give ourselves to God and to rest fawningly on him.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
But where does that leave outsiders? Because of how God made us, as communion creatures and inside seekers, everyone has an ineradicable mark on them, a holy label: “Treasure of the Trinity.” They are God’s posterity and God’s possession. And when they reject him, they can’t change who they are; they just change how they look and what they chase. In The Gladiator, Russel Crowe tried to scrape off a tattoo marking him as a soldier in the Roman army. But even the scraping would leave a mark. He couldn’t completely erase his past. He could only try to hide it as he pursued a different life. That’s what outsiders are doing. Their tattoo is the trinitarian triquetra, sealing them as sacred image-bearers of God. The new life they are chasing leads away from his Lordship. But wherever they go, they carry the mark of their Maker.
Wherever they go, outsiders carry the mark of their Maker.
And wherever they go, they’re looking for what insiders have: to be fully known and fully loved. The problem is that they’re chasing smoke trails and climbing ladders to nowhere. They choose an idol of some kind—materialism, pride, human relationships, pleasure, comfort—but, as Dan Strange put it, the idols always over promise and under deliver. They cannot offer what outsiders seek. And so outsiders end up being wanderers, meandering between temporary fulfillment and nagging dissatisfaction. They chase but never find. They purchase but never possess.
CHRIST AS HOLY INSIDER
It’s in this context that the gospel burns so brilliantly. Jesus Christ is the divine insider come to outsiders. He is both the knowledge (Phil. 3:8; 1 Cor. 1:30) and the love of God (Eph. 3:17–19), given for outsiders. And because of his holy blood, shed to make peace with God (Col. 1:20), we can have fawning fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. We can get in.
Only the holy can save the unholy. Only the inside can reach the outside. Apart from Christ, we’re wanderers, looking for love in all the wrong places.
That makes the church a body of outsiders made insiders by grace. And in God’s poetic parallelism, he sends grace-granted insiders to witness before outsiders. He sends the inside to the outside. Hence the constant call in John’s Gospel for Christians to testify to everyone that the Son has been sent (John 3:34; 4:34; 5:23–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29, 38–39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23; 20:21). The holy Trinity sent himself to unholy rebels. And in that message of the Son sent for sinners lies the true hope for all outsiders to be fully known and fully loved. Apart from the sent Son, they remain wandering vagrants.
Only the holy can save the unholy. Only the inside can reach the outside.
C.S. Lewis pined for that day when faith would be sight, when he would finally get in. And in Christ, we gain entrance to the brilliant light of the inside, where we are fully known and fully loved. The real question for us right now is how we’ll engage with outsiders to invite them in, too. Because only the inside can reach the outside.
Thank God he found us. And praise him that we have the task of pointing wanderers toward the sent Son. It’s only in him that we ever get in.